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Dundalk activists question police scrutiny after public testimony

Two longtime Dundalk community activists say they are troubled that a Baltimore County police official called them at home after they testified against a development proposal at a County Council work session this month.

A police spokeswoman said the department did not mean to offend the people and that Chief Jim Johnson is reviewing the matter, which the two activists say they viewed as an attempt to intimidate them.

Karen Cruz, president of the Eastfield-Stanbrook Civic Association, and Bob Staab, a former county parks director and state legislator, say a police corporal called them at home a few days after they testified at a July 1 public meeting in Towson. Both had spoken against plans to redevelop the former North Point Government Center in Dundalk.

In the phone call, Cpl. Morgan Hassler talked about wanting to "keep peace" at council meetings, Staab said. Cruz said the corporal wanted to "go over the rules" for public meetings.

Hassler asked to meet with both of them at the local library; when they got to the July 7 meeting, both said, they were met by three police officials.

"I honestly felt like they were trying to intimidate me," Staab said.

Both Cruz and Staab belong to the group Dundalk United, a community organization formed to oppose the sale of the government center.

Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost responded to questions on behalf of the department and the officers. She said Hassler, of the special operations division, asked to meet with the two after plainclothes officers assigned to the work sessions witnessed "some behavior that was a little bit more boisterous than what they typically see at a work session."

Over the past year and a half, police officials have been meeting with advocacy groups — such as an anti-abortion group, animal-rights advocates and Wal-Mart protesters — to explain laws on demonstrations and protests, Armacost said.

"It appears that there was some misunderstanding here about what the purpose of the [library] meeting was," Armacost said. "The Police Department approached them in the same way that they've approached protest groups, which was in a polite and friendly way to discuss concerns about protocols."

The two plainclothes officers filed reports, dated July 8, describing their concerns about the work session. The reports are marked "highly confidential," but the department released them in response to a public-information request by The Baltimore Sun. The reports give a detailed description of the work session. They call the behavior of some attendees "disruptive" and "disrespectful," saying some people were "agitated" that they only had three minutes to speak or when they learned that they couldn't testify if they had not signed up before the work session.

Neither report mentions Staab, but one says Cruz talked longer than the allowed three minutes and later had a loud conversation with another person attending the work session.

One report says some people attending the session shouted questions from their seats, and it characterized the behavior of some at the meeting as showing "a complete lack of respect for the business procedures of the work session."

The reports say Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins was disrupted because of people talking in the audience, and also detail how one attendee was filming the meeting with his cellphone.

Staab and Cruz said that at the library meeting, the police representatives wanted to talk about demonstrations.

"Nobody talked about any rules at all," Cruz said. "They talked about demonstrating."

The two said they were scratching their heads when they left the meeting, which lasted about 20 minutes.

Cruz said the whole situation "just didn't feel right."

"It felt like we were being targeted, and they were trying to intimidate us," she said.

Asked about the work session, Bevins said some residents were upset that they could not speak. She also said Cruz was disruptive because she kept speaking after her time was up.

"She just kept talking and talking, and then when she sat, she was still talking," said Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

Councilman David Marks, who also attended the work session, said there was "passionate" testimony on the Dundalk proposal and from the opponents of a student-housing project in Towson, which is in his district. He said he did not witness anything threatening.

"I think they were passionate, but I have seen other witnesses who have also displayed that type of emotion," said Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. "I personally didn't feel threatened."

Armacost said police want to help strike a balance between people exercising their First Amendment rights and ensuring public safety. The department "encourages people to express their views through the democratic process," she said.

She added that one of the officials at the meeting, Maj. Woodland Wilson, felt comfortable discussing the officers' concerns with Cruz because he previously was the North Point captain and knew her as a community leader.

"We are sorry that they appear to have taken this the wrong way," Armacost said. "But this meeting was an extension of our ongoing efforts to reach out to groups to try to help them ensure that these types of opportunities to express their opinions goes smoothly."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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